Thursday, October 20, 2011

Interesting M.D. Tenn. Case on ADAAA

Earlier this week, a federal magistrate judge issued his report and recommendation regarding the defendant's summary judgment motion in Thomas v. Werthan Packaging, Inc., 2011 WL 4915776 (M.D. Tenn., Oct. 17, 2011).  The case is a standard-issue ADA employment case.  Thomas operated various paper cutting and labeling machines for a company that makes large paper bags to hold pet food.  Thomas injured his hand at work and developed back problems, both of which made him unable to lift more than 20 pounds.  Werthan terminated him.

Werthan moved for summary judgment on the grounds that (a) Thomas did not have a disability; and (b) lifting more than 20 pounds was an essential function of the job.  Because Thomas was terminated in 2009, the court applied the ADA Amendments Act to the first question.  The magistrate judge noted that a number of cases applying the pre-ADAAA statute had held that a 20-pound lifting restriction did not substantially limit a major life activity and thus did not constitute a disability.  But, he explained, the ADAAA had explicitly defined major life activities to include lifting; given the new statute's instruction to apply a broad definition of disability, he concluded that there remained material facts regarding whether Thomas was substantially limited.

Nonetheless, the magistrate judge recommended granting the summary judgment motion on the "essential functions" question.  Although he refused "to give undue weight to defendant Werthan's assessment" of what constituted an essential function, the magistrate judge concluded that all of the evidence demonstrated that lifting more than 20 pounds was an essential function of Thomas's job.  He looked to the employer's written job description; testimony from Thomas's supervisor that his job required Thomas to team-lift, with a coworker, a 90-pound object approximately seven times per eight-hour shift; and testimony from an HR officer at Werthan that none of Thomas's coworkers required others to do their lifting for them.

The essential functions holding here is arguable, but the case nonetheless shows how important are the changes made by the ADAAA.  Under pre-ADAAA law, a court would likely not even have considered whether Thomas could perform the essential functions of his job -- i.e., whether the employer discriminated.  Here, the court at least focused on that important question, rather than pretermitting that question by declaring that Thomas could not even invoke the protection of the law.

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